Spina bifida

Spina bifida is a birth defect in which the bones of the spine (vertebrae) do not form properly around the spinal cord. It can occur anywhere along the spine.

The defect may be mild, in which case it is hidden under the skin and rarely causes problems. In severe spina bifida, part of the spinal cord or spinal nerves may be exposed on the outside of the skin. It can lead to health problems, physical handicaps, and learning problems.

Spina bifida develops in a fetus early in pregnancy, often before a woman knows she is pregnant. A woman is at increased risk for having a baby with spina bifida if her diet lacks folic acid. (Folic acid is a B vitamin found in leafy green vegetables, liver, certain types of beans, and other foods.) Women of childbearing age can reduce their chances of having a baby with spina bifida by eating a healthy diet and taking folic acid supplements.

Blood tests, fetal ultrasound, and amniocentesis can sometimes detect spina bifida during pregnancy.

When spina bifida is mild and does not cause symptoms, it usually does not need treatment. In severe cases of spina bifida, surgery may be needed soon after birth.

Last Updated: April 3, 2009

Author: Debby Golonka, MPH

Medical Review: Michael J. Sexton, MD - Pediatrics & Louis Pellegrino, MD - Developmental Pediatrics

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